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America the Beautiful, Open to All

by Paul Kurtz

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 21, Number 4.

The United States is not “a Christian nation”  nor even ”Judeo-Christian”—contrary to what conservatives and fundamentalists proclaim. The first Americans, who migrated from Asia to this continent over the Bering Strait some 15 to 20 thousand years ago, were pagans! Millions of Native Americans were already here when European conquerors—from Spanish Conquistadors to English Puritan dissenters—arrived claiming to “discover” America. White settlers drove the Indian tribes off their lands or slaughtered them as they pushed westward.

Granted, at one time there was a Protestant majority among these White settlers. After heavy Roman Catholic immigration in the nineteenth century, one had to speak of a Christian majority. But add to this the Africans who were forcibly brought here on slave ships, stripped of their native religions, and compelled to convert to Christianity. Later, millions of Jewish immigrants came to the United States seeking freedom.

Successive waves of immigration continue transforming America today. It is the most religiously diverse country in the world. According to the latest census, this process accelerated during the 1990s; as never before, immigrants from all corners of the globe are reweaving the fabric of American life.

This latter-day transformation is vividly depicted in a new book by Harvard religion professor Diana L. Eck, A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Now Become the World’s Most Diverse Nation (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001). Today Islamic mosques and Buddhist and Hindu temples are being built in virtually every major city or suburb in America. Asian immigration is no doubt a result of the 1965 immigration act signed by President Lyndon Johnson, which repealed quotas tied to national origins. From 1990 to 1999, the Asian population increased by 43 percent, to nearly eleven million. Today there are an estimated six million Muslims (rapidly growing not only through immigration but also because of high birth rates and numerous conversions), millions of Buddhists, one million Hindus, hundreds of thousands each of Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Bahái, Jains, Confucians, Pagans, and Shintoists. There are an estimated 1,350 diverse religious denominations in this country!

Similar changes are occurring in our nation’s racial and ethnic mix. Hispanics increased by 38.8 percent, now numbering 33.3 million (many of them evangelical Protestants). Given widespread intermarriage across religious, racial, and ethnic lines, there are many Americans who are of mixed parentage and express diverse talents and outlooks—as Tiger Woods so eloquently illustrates. Added to this mix are the millions of Americans who belong to no religious denomination (47 percent) or do not profess a belief in a god or gods (8 to 11 percent). Twenty percent of Americans believe the Bible to be an ancient book of fables recorded by man.

All of the above are now true-blue Americans, entitled to equal protection of the laws; no one is a second-class citizen. In truth, every American is a member of some minority; even “Baptist” and “Roman Catholic” are minority labels. The United States is nothing less than a microcosm of the planetary community, for it represents multicultural diversity, a plurality of ethnic religious and nonreligious beliefs and values. Given the conditions of freedom inherent in an open democratic society, all individuals and groups—no matter what their gender, age or racial, religious, ethnic, or creedal backgrounds—are entitled to pursue their own lifestyles. As I drive to my offices every day, I pass by Episcopal, Unitarian, Methodist, Christian Science, Mormon, and Roman Catholic churches, as well as Sikh, Hindu, and Chasidic temples.

Actually, history gives no warrant for saying what kind of nation, religiously speaking, our country was meant to be. The United States as a political state did  not come into being until the Constitution was ratified in 1787. The Articles of Confederation (1777) and the Declaration of Independence (1776), which preceded the Constitution, did not provide the basic legal framework for this country. The Constitution makes no mention of God and explicitly provides that there is no religious test for office; it guarantees political freedom to every citizen no matter what his or her creed. The Civil War and the suffragist movement eventually extended the franchise and other rights to African-Americans and women. The fact that the White colonists were predominantly Protestant in the seventeenth and eighteenth century (ignoring Blacks and Native Americans) does not stamp America as indelibly Protestant or even Christian.

The United States is not a monotheistic nation either. Its citizens hold a wide range of beliefs, from atheism through monotheism to polytheism and even pantheism. The vigorous doctrinal disputes that have invigorated life throughout the nation’s history should provide sufficient evidence of America’s religious diversity.

And yet in spite of this, there are still brazen attempts by fundamentalists—including many within the Bush/Ashcroft administration—to reinterpret the Constitution, and to threaten the rights and liberties of millions of Americans who do not share their own religious predilections.

Tim LaHaye and David Noebel in Mind Siege: The Battle for Truth in the New Millennium (Nashville, Tenn.: World Publishing, 2000, reviewed in the last issue of Free Inquiry) still insist that the United States is a Christian country. Would they exclude Asian citizens who hold different beliefs? They claim that secular humanism is the “established” religion of the United States and wish to extirpate its influence from public life. We reply that secular humanism is not a religion; it is a philosophical, scientific, and ethical eupraxsophy (good wisdom in conduct). In any case, there is no common religious creed that represents all of the people of the United States. The same battle against religious tyranny that Jefferson waged against the fundamentalists of his day apparently needs to be fought again today. James Madison observed in The Federalist Papers that, if the Republic is to survive, then it needs to avoid factions, and religious factions are among the most dangerous. Many of the Founding Fathers were deists, not Christians; they recognized that liberty of conscience is precious and that any effort to establish an official American religious creed needs to be opposed.

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